Skye Gilkerson and the Edge of Space

Introduction, Exhibition Catalog, Skye Gilkerson: Unending, Institute of Contemporary Art Baltimore. Exhibition Dates: October 1-23, 2016


Where lies the edge of space? Watching stars emerge from the gradient of a changing sky at dusk, it is difficult to imagine any such lines or definitive edges in the great expanse. However, a definitive answer exists. Sixty-two miles above the Earth, there is a boundary known as the Kármán line—a measurement commonly recognized as the line between our atmosphere and outer space. It is a fact that atmosphere does not end abruptly at any given height; it becomes thinner with altitude. But in the case of the Kármán line, scientific reasoning is centered around an aircraft’s ability to stay aloft. Limits are thus defined and space is quantified, addressing the need to make concrete sense of our location in the cosmos relative to what lies beyond.

Vast expanses of outer space are contrasted with the personal realm in our own brand of atmosphere. Also made up of various layers, ours expand outward from the earliest memories and the places we have called home to how and where we stretch our legs and our understanding of the world. Memories are made concrete by the physical objects and relics that give them weight. Our mental and physical space thus becomes an amalgam of these memories, images and objects, floating around us as we negotiate the daily routine.  

Skye Gilkerson,  Palindrome (poem).  Image courtesy of the artist.

Skye Gilkerson, Palindrome (poem). Image courtesy of the artist.

In between here and there—here being our inner depths and there being the seemingly infinite beyond—we seek knowledge and hope for transcendence. In the process, how do we conflate the cosmic with the everyday? Herein lies the terrain of Skye Gilkerson’s work: an approach the artist describes as “subtle interventions to ordinary, often ubiquitous materials to unfold awareness of our surroundings and destabilize familiar structures.” Embracing concepts related to space, time, language and landscape, she explores our relationship to place with works often imbued with a sense of longing or wonder. Thoughtfully considered and painstakingly created, as in the case of the extracted punctuation marks in Palindrome (poem), the collection of works included in Unending creates an undulating invitation. Opportunities to “zoom in” and examine are contrasted with videos encouraging us to step back and scan the horizon. Literally. But Gilkerson can also play the role of the trickster, using installation and abstraction as tools to subvert and reimagine.

Skye Gilkerson,  Atlas,  2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

Skye Gilkerson, Atlas, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

In the image Atlas, created in collaboration with photographer Gina Cholick, the artist is depicted doing a headstand on the beach—her left toes perfectly balanced on the horizon line as her right leg kicks up slightly behind. The image is inverted so she appears to be walking along the horizon as one would a tightrope, with the weight of the Earth balanced atop her head as the heavens stretch below. Tracing her inspiration back to sculptures of Roman antiquity, the photograph references The Farnese Atlas—a classic marble sculpture depicting the Greek god kneeling as he carries the weight of the celestial sphere on his shoulders. Gilkerson’s take communicates a sense of levity as she plays with distance and perspective, but there is also depth in its layers as she references and challenges art history with an alternative view on gravity.

Last year, Gilkerson wrote a letter to Sir Richard Branson—founder of Virgin Galactic, the world’s first spaceline—to suggest the addition of an artist residency component to its spaceflight program:

“As noted in Virgin Galactic’s literature, viewing the earth from the vantage point of space has the potential to create profound cognitive and emotional perspective shifts. In many ways, this is parallel to the pursuit of art itself: to present the familiar, same old world, in new and enlivening ways.”

The letter goes on to highlight the influence of astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, citing his Pale Blue Dot image and essay. One of the works in this exhibition, also titled Pale Blue Dot (for Carl Sagan), pays homage to the photograph made famous by the scientist—an image of planet Earth seen from deep space and identified as little more than a glimmering dot—with a portable viewfinder that transforms any landscape into the same experience. Gilkerson has referred to this idea as “the ultimate abstraction,” wondering how the experience of seeing the Earth from outer space might be transmuted to everyday experience.

Collection of objects for  There and Back,  2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

Collection of objects for There and Back, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

Amongst the new works featured in Unending also lies a labyrinth. Constructed by the artist with objects collected over the course of 124 miles, the work references the tradition of the pilgrimage as well as the historical birth of the labyrinth for pilgrims unable to complete journeys of long duration. Notably, it is twice the distance to the Kármán line (referenced at the beginning of the essay). The structure, made from a flow of objects placed in the order found, reflects the range of locations in which they were acquired. Titled There and Back, the work is Gilkerson’s own abbreviated pilgrimage in lieu of her proposed space travel. But this project, and the exhibition as a whole, also present unique vantage points encouraging both artist and viewer to shift perspective.

Returning from a recent walk during which she gathered materials for the labyrinth, Gilkerson excitedly described a token object: a discarded ball of aluminum foil unwittingly shaped into a perfect sphere. In walking the symbolic line between here and there, such a discovery also strikes me as its own sort of glimmering dot: the same old world comes alive.